Super: Feds misplaced a little bit of smallpox

posted at 10:01 pm on July 8, 2014 by Mary Katharine Ham

It sounds like the premise for a mid-90s disease outbreak drama. A couple of vials of the smallpox virus misplaced in an unsecured freezer or closet at a government facility with the potential to fall into God knows whose hands. In this case, it seems that luckily they were found by benevolent scientists (likely played by a saucy Rene Russo in her prime), not some nefarious figure or a bumbling bureaucrat, which could be just as disastrous.

Scientists cleaning out an old laboratory on the National Institutes of Health campus in Bethesda, Md., last week came across a startling discovery: vials labeled “variola” — in other words, smallpox.

Under international convention, there are supposed to be only two stashes of this deadly virus: one at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, and another at a similar facility in Russia.

The CDC swooped in to collect the vials and carted them off to a secure lab at its Atlanta headquarters.

In a statement Tuesday, the agency said scientists did indeed find smallpox DNA in the vials. Scientists are now testing the sample to see whether any of the is still capable of causing disease. That testing will take two weeks.

Incidentally, two weeks is about the amount of time it takes for smallpox to kill about 30 percent of the people infected. Just to be clear, they found smallpox. In a closet. During an office move. The CDC fact page on potential smallpox outbreak assures us that it only exists in a couple approved labs:

Today, the smallpox virus is kept in two approved labs in the U.S. and Russia.


NBC notes it’s not the only recent dangerous embarrassment for the federal agencies involved in disease control:

It’s the second lab lapse discovered in a month at federal facilities, though this mistake actually happened decades ago, experts emphasized. In June, more than 80 employees at a Centers for Disease Control laboratory were exposed to airborne anthrax bacteria in an embarrassing blunder.

No one really needs to be informed that errant smallpox samples are potentially catastrophic, but just to bring the point home, there’s this story. Once the world’s most prolific killer disease was eradicated in 1980, there were several samples kept for study. In the 1990s, there was a global debate in the science and public health communities about whether to destroy those samples, with the decision made by the World Health Organization to keep them.

The same debate is raging again now:

This month the World Health Organization (WHO) will meet to decide whether or not to destroy the last living strains of the variola virus, which causes smallpox. Since the WHO declared the disease eradicated in 1979, the scientific community has debated whether or not to destroy live virus samples, which have been consolidated to laboratories in Russia and at the U. S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta. Small frozen test tubes preserve the surviving strains, and most were collected around the time of eradication, though some date to the early 1930s.

Inger Damon, who leads the poxvirus and rabies branch at the CDC, and her colleagues argue in an editorial in PLoS Pathogens today to save the virus from full extinction. According to Damon, retaining the live samples will allow researchers to delve into unanswered questions about the variola virus and to test better vaccines, diagnostics, and drugs. “There is more work to be done before the international community can be confident that it possesses sufficient protection against any future smallpox threats,” they write.

Other scientists argue it’s unnecessary to keep the virus around, as the last natural recorded case occurred in 1977. They also argue that any further experimentation can be done on smallpox relatives that are less dangerous. And, last, that advances in synthetic biology have made the samples superfluous because we can recreate the disease’s genetic sequence.

The other reason?

Maintaining the samples comes with a risk of accidental release, as with any other high-risk pathogen.

To Poland, those risks are ultimately unnecessary; in fact, he argues that we have an ethical burden to destroy the virus or at least restrict its research use and access. “An accidental release, no matter how small the risk is an unacceptable risk, given the lack of any possible utility in keeping the virus,” he said in 2011.

Doug Mataconis argues the presence of these rogue samples makes the case for not destroying the ones we know about:

I’ve written twice previously this year about the renewed debate about whether or not the last known samples of smallpox should be destroyed, here and here. As I noted then, a good part of the argument in favor of the argument to destroy the samples is that they are, in fact, the last known samples of the virus on the planet. If they aren’t, then it’s always possible that the virus, or a mutated form of it, could return and wreck havoc on public health before medical professionals are able to come up with effective countermeasures. By maintaining the samples, there would at least be the possibility of having something of a running start in the event that happened. Now that we have confirmation that even the CDC may not have a handle on all its smallpox samples, it seems to me as though the debate is over. Keep the samples we have alive. Better safe than sorry.

In yet another movie-style twist, some argue it’s worth keeping the samples around because dead bodies buried in cold climes could still carry traces of viable smallpox. Now, we find that perhaps the discussion of eradication of the last strains of smallpox was premature. Everyone check their minifridges, please.


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Oh yea, this makes me feel much better. Especially with the incubators rolling over the border every minute.

USNCVN on July 8, 2014 at 10:06 PM

Oh and Bishop? (does it really count on an off-topic such as this?)

USNCVN on July 8, 2014 at 10:07 PM

Let’s have this government control our health care system.

“Sir, we seemed to have misplaced the liver for your transplant, sorry about that. Soooo….uh…we’ll call you if we find it.”

Bishop on July 8, 2014 at 10:13 PM

No biggie…. King Putt’s invaders (and by now Nanzi Pelosi) are likely chock full of it.

viking01 on July 8, 2014 at 10:14 PM

I am thinking a place like Johnston Atoll would be the place to keep things like this.

A remote uninhabitated island where any outbreak or accident can easily be contained.

Sooner or later one of the Demons in The Freezer will escape.

sharrukin on July 8, 2014 at 10:14 PM

Oh there it is. I’ve been looking for that.

BDavis on July 8, 2014 at 10:19 PM

…your government…in charge!

JugEarsButtHurt on July 8, 2014 at 10:20 PM

…OT/does everybody have Katie Pavlich leaning on the left of your screen?
…I’m going to go cozmo pretty soon…and it’s only Tuesday! I’m feeling assaulted!

JugEarsButtHurt on July 8, 2014 at 10:22 PM

I misplaced my apple remote, maybe it’s there.
Or maybe, it’s with my doctor I thought I could keep. /

HornetSting on July 8, 2014 at 10:24 PM

JugEarsButtHurt on July 8, 2014 at 10:22 PM

I don’t know who is on the left side of my screen, but she’s hot as hell. She can’t be a Lefty.

8 weight on July 8, 2014 at 10:27 PM

I have never liked the idea of keeping these items in the ATL.

Bmore on July 8, 2014 at 10:27 PM

I am thinking a place like Johnston Atoll would be the place to keep things like this.

sharrukin on July 8, 2014 at 10:14 PM

Well now, that’s a pretty stupid idea. Johnson Atoll? An island? Similar to Guam??? Congressman Johnson reminds you that islands such as Guam (and Johnson Atoll) are prone to tipping over and sliding into the sea. You SURE you want to put your dangerous bioweapons there???

USNCVN on July 8, 2014 at 10:27 PM

Whoops wrong copy

…OT/does everybody have Katie Pavlich leaning on the left of your screen?
…I’m going to go cozmo pretty soon…and it’s only Tuesday! I’m feeling assaulted!

JugEarsButtHurt on July 8, 2014 at 10:22 PM

No, but I wouldn’t mind.

formwiz on July 8, 2014 at 10:28 PM

How charming….

sorrowen on July 8, 2014 at 10:29 PM

Really:

https://twitter.com/AP

Retweeted by The Associated Press
AP Politics @AP_Politics · 9h

Forgotten vials of smallpox found in NIH government building storage room; officials say no danger, by @MikeStobbe. http://apne.ws/1lRqFXd
=======================

http://bigstory.ap.org/article/forgotten-vials-smallpox-found-storage-room

ATLANTA (AP) — A government scientist cleaning out an old storage room at a research center near Washington made a startling discovery last week — decades-old vials of smallpox packed away and forgotten in a cardboard box.

The six glass vials were intact and sealed, and scientists have yet to establish whether the virus is dead or alive, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Tuesday.

Still, the find was disturbing because for decades after smallpox was declared eradicated in 1980, world health authorities said the only known samples left were safely stored in super-secure laboratories in Atlanta and in Russia.

Officials said this is the first time in the U.S. that unaccounted-for smallpox has been discovered. At least one leading scientist raised the possibility that there are more such vials out there around the world.

The CDC and the FBI are investigating.

canopfor on July 8, 2014 at 10:29 PM

Well now, that’s a pretty stupid idea. Johnson Atoll? An island? Similar to Guam??? Congressman Johnson reminds you that islands such as Guam (and Johnson Atoll) are prone to tipping over and sliding into the sea. You SURE you want to put your dangerous bioweapons there???

USNCVN on July 8, 2014 at 10:27 PM

Sorry, I had forgotten about the whole tipping problem.

Maybe if we put anchors around the island it might work?

sharrukin on July 8, 2014 at 10:29 PM

8 weight on July 8, 2014 at 10:27 PM

Its Katie. I just had to go onto a computer with no ad blocking app installed. I had no idea HA looked like it does. Ads everywhere. Wow!

Bmore on July 8, 2014 at 10:30 PM

Right next to a disk drive full of IRS email files…L.I.B.! These incompetent (*&(*&%^$!!! are beyond belief.

Is this all falling apart on purpose, are they TRYING to start an insurrection? Are they chomping at the bit to fire all those millions of hollow-points at US? They sure won’t “break the rules” to fire HP in international war. But us subjects, we’ll just “get what we deserve”?

What is really going on?

And after the mid-terms, WTF are they going to unleash then?

It’s not paranoia when they really are out to get you!

Who is John Galt on July 8, 2014 at 10:31 PM

ATLANTA (AP) — A government scientist cleaning out an old storage room at a research center near Washington made a startling discovery last week — decades-old vials of smallpox packed away and forgotten in a cardboard box.

The six glass vials were intact and sealed, and scientists have yet to establish whether the virus is dead or alive, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Tuesday.

The scary version of this story is that there were a dozen vials and they only found six.

After all, they didn’t seem to know the six vials were even missing.

sharrukin on July 8, 2014 at 10:32 PM

Sorry, I had forgotten about the whole tipping problem.

Maybe if we put anchors around the island it might work?

sharrukin on July 8, 2014 at 10:29 PM

No sweat…happens to the best of us. I can’t tell you how many times I risked death (unknowingly of course) on shore leave on various unstable islands. My life was literally hanging in the balance.

The anchor thingies, though. That might just work. We could run it by Hank, just to be sure.

USNCVN on July 8, 2014 at 10:34 PM

They didn’t misplace anything…this crap is on it’s
way to addresses of people like Ted Cruz, Sarah Palin,
Rand Paul, Rick Perry……you think I’m kidding people??

This entire group is the worst scum to ever breathe..

ToddPA on July 8, 2014 at 10:36 PM

scientists have yet to establish whether the virus is dead or alive

^ What does that mean?

Axe on July 8, 2014 at 10:36 PM

So some vials of smallpox are just laying around waiting to be stepped on or dropped, how the hell did those things EVER get out of an uber-secure clean room without 25 people signing off on it.

Bishop on July 8, 2014 at 10:41 PM

Time to complete the stocking up of the bunkers, people. It’s going to get ugly fairly soon. Apparently you’re going to need to add biofilters to the ventilation systems, too.

USNCVN on July 8, 2014 at 10:43 PM

Don’t bother the CDC, they are busy trying to prove that gun ownership is some kind of disease.

slickwillie2001 on July 8, 2014 at 11:31 PM

“The Federal government announced that there was no risk to the American public.”

“In other news, the Federal government also reiterated that there was no political motivation behind the IRS investigating Tea Party groups, nor political intent behind their tardy response to thousands of illegal immigrants crossing the southern border, nor any risk to individual privacy from NSA monitoring of cellphone and Email traffic.”

Sounds completely believable. What could possibly go wrong by trusting Holy Mother Government?

orangemtl on July 9, 2014 at 12:01 AM

Time to complete the stocking up of the bunkers, people. It’s going to get ugly fairly soon. Apparently you’re going to need to add biofilters to the ventilation systems, too.

My wife and I were vaccinated in our youth, in the early 70′s.
We will sincerely miss all of you.

orangemtl on July 9, 2014 at 12:03 AM

…to say nothing of the tuberculosis and STDs being transmitted by the illegals the Federal coyotes are trying to ship in.

gryphon202 on July 9, 2014 at 12:05 AM

In yet another movie-style twist, some argue it’s worth keeping the samples around because dead bodies buried in cold climes could still carry traces of viable smallpox. Now, we find that perhaps the discussion of eradication of the last strains of smallpox was premature. Everyone check their minifridges, please.

YET one more reason for phasing out social security. What’s in your fridge?

WryTrvllr on July 9, 2014 at 12:18 AM

All joking aside, the next plague will be of human make, released by some environmental whack job who works at a bio-research lab.

Bank on it.

WryTrvllr on July 9, 2014 at 12:20 AM

Simpleton solution — pay these Federal groups better so they don’t make mistakes… Ok, that’s scary easy…

Running short on cash paying for OFood stamps and stuff — Simple, print some more…

It’s all Bushes fault…

It’s all in “ORocket Science for Dummies”. This books is going to be a worldwide best seller, presales available some day soon at Costco…

drfredc on July 9, 2014 at 12:27 AM

All joking aside, the next plague will be of human make, released by some environmental whack job who works at a bio-research lab.

Bank on it.

WryTrvllr on July 9, 2014 at 12:20 AM

Yes, and maybe even someone in Barry’s administration like Zeke Emanuel.

slickwillie2001 on July 9, 2014 at 12:29 AM

They didn’t misplace anything…this crap is on it’s
way to addresses of people like Ted Cruz, Sarah Palin,
Rand Paul, Rick Perry……you think I’m kidding people??

This entire group is the worst scum to ever breathe..

ToddPA on July 8, 2014 at 10:36 PM

Rumor has it O’bonga’s reassigning Lois Lerner to the CDC.

Red Creek on July 9, 2014 at 12:41 AM

Yes, and maybe even someone in Barry’s administration like Zeke Emanuel.

slickwillie2001 on July 9, 2014 at 12:29 AM

If there’s one thing we’ve learned from the IRS/NSA/EPA/MIC/KEY/MOU/SEs is that they don’t need to be a part of the administration. They just need to believe.

WryTrvllr on July 9, 2014 at 12:42 AM

If these were stored at room temperature, it isn’t surprising they found viral DNA (probably degraded). I really doubt any virions are still infectious, but they could be.

If they were stored in a ultralow freezer (<-65C), then they were probably still infectious and should be treated as such.

Still I'm surprised these weren't in a more secure area.

nazo311 on July 9, 2014 at 1:01 AM

Top. Men.

trigon on July 9, 2014 at 1:12 AM

Well, there we were cataloging the lab equipment when someone yelled “SMALLPOX FIGHT”!…and vials and test tubes were flying in every direction.

BDavis on July 9, 2014 at 1:30 AM

From what I was told, these samples were stored in the early 1950′s. Back then, they had armed guards and tight security,(for the times)but loosing paperwork was common for newly minted government outfits back then. Still…… it’s smallpox, so tight controls would be the norm. In all likely hood, they knew they had “misplaced” the samples so they kept quiet, and contained the search till they found the paperwork that I.D. the location of the samples.(65 plus years later UGH!)

flackcatcher on July 9, 2014 at 1:32 AM

And Yes, it is contained….

flackcatcher on July 9, 2014 at 1:37 AM

The Bad News: A vial of smallpox is missing. It’s deadly. Since we are no longer immune it could kill us by the millions.

The Good News: Obama and his Good Hands People are on the case so I know we are safe,

MaiDee on July 9, 2014 at 1:57 AM

So some vials of smallpox are just laying around waiting to be stepped on or dropped, how the hell did those things EVER get out of an uber-secure clean room without 25 people signing off on it.

Bishop on July 8, 2014 at 10:41 PM

Bush, of course.

BobMbx on July 9, 2014 at 6:55 AM

There go a whole bunch of timelines all around us where it was just a standard bureaucrat who found the box and tossed it into the trash… where the garbage truck crushed the vials open and started leaving a trail of it all the way to the central processing facility where it got dumped out and moved around for a day or two exposing everyone in the facility to it. Then it finally goes to the dump, where it is moved around a bit more exposing everyone there.

That isn’t a ‘Patient Zero’ thing, that is a mass outbreak that goes global within a week deal due to the incubation and spread time needed before it becomes apparent a host is infected. With this case you wouldn’t even be able to pin it down as to where it came from, and might have trouble just finding the right stop along the garbage pick-up route… if the company is still running… and finding out it was a lost package of the virus that the CDC lost track of? Never happen.

And do we even have the depth of medical facilities to deal with a mass outbreak just inside the US? What with all the ‘economizing’ and centralizing of health care and the closing down of hospitals and shortage of doctors and nurses… my guess is no.

As my Uncle Edward used to say looking out the window and asked how bad was it: ‘No one dead in the streets, so it can’t be that bad.’

We ran out of Good Luck standing up the Nation. Never again would so many smart and moral individuals come together to fight for freedom so it could be established in the world.

We ran out of Dumb Luck during the Cold War as the number of incidents that could easily have produced a nuclear toasty Nation and world were many, and Dumb Luck kept this timeline sailed through it just on that.

Thus we are down to Divine Providence.

Because it sure, as hell, isn’t due to competence.

ajacksonian on July 9, 2014 at 6:55 AM

From what I was told, these samples were stored in the early 1950′s. Back then, they had armed guards and tight security,(for the times)but loosing paperwork was common for newly minted government outfits back then. Still…… it’s smallpox, so tight controls would be the norm. In all likely hood, they knew they had “misplaced” the samples so they kept quiet, and contained the search till they found the paperwork that I.D. the location of the samples.(65 plus years later UGH!)

flackcatcher on July 9, 2014 at 1:32 AM

You should read up on Soviet-era RTGs (radioisotope thermo-electric generators). Here’s a link to some photos of them. The scary part? No one knows how many were made, or where they all “should” be.

BobMbx on July 9, 2014 at 7:00 AM

The Bad News: A vial of smallpox is missing. It’s deadly. Since we are no longer immune it could kill us by the millions.

Well, I still have that vaccination scar on my upper left arm from my youth.

307wolverine on July 9, 2014 at 7:28 AM

‘safe’?

In Atlanta, apparently under the control of incompetents for decades.

In Russia (um, just how many hands have been in control of Russia the past 20some years?) , giving Putin a play toy.

{ pulls sheets over head}

socalcon on July 9, 2014 at 8:21 AM

Oh, there are definitely other surviving samples. Bet on it.

Something this dangerous becomes more valuable the fewer samples available. There were others preserved, some probably by the major powers, possibly even a private lab.

This discovery confirms that.

But is Mataconis seriously contending that there is still a benefit to keeping live virus? The research has all been done, and it is no longer necessary for vaccines.

No matter how many or few exist in the world, every existing cache is another place a catastrophe could happen and trigger a release. The less of this stuff the better.

Adjoran on July 9, 2014 at 8:29 AM

When I saw this story yesterday I was unimpressed and unconcerned, and today I still am. The virus in these vials is long dead. It would be like finding a years old used Kleenex left behind by some careless person. Disgusting? Yes. Dangerous? Not in the least.

Somebody screwed up decades ago, but the result is a nothingburger because the samples remained unknown and hidden until they died. Now, knowing government bureaucracy, and its tendency to screw up, the only real concern is whether or not we continue to maintain dangerous samples in Atlanta. I think the only answer to that question is yes because the Russians still have their dangerous samples.

NotCoach on July 9, 2014 at 8:32 AM

^ What does that mean?

Axe on July 8, 2014 at 10:36 PM

That means the samples are so old, and were not adequately stored for preservation, that the virus in the vials is almost certainly all dead.

NotCoach on July 9, 2014 at 8:37 AM

…It would be like finding a years old used Kleenex left behind by some careless person. Disgusting? Yes. Dangerous? Not in the least. …

NotCoach on July 9, 2014 at 8:32 AM

The article says that the sample were in glass sealed vials, so if the samples weren’t exposed to oxygen or UV rays it is entirely possible that they are live. Smallpox, the biggest single killer of mankind, is nothing to be cavalier about.

batterup on July 9, 2014 at 8:49 AM

Does anyone else think it’s a bit naive to believe that just because the US and the Russians have the only ‘known’ cache of smallpox virus, that there is no longer any threat?

Suppose there is some third party that has maintained a few samples over the past 50 years, and did not tell anybody?

What if one of those countries was Syria? How would things go if ISIS were to succeed in taking over Iraq, then use the Iraqi military assets available to march in and take control of Syria?

How would ISIS make use of a few vials of live smallpox virus? I can think of a few scenarios that would not be pleasant.

On the upside, if 30% of the world population were to disappear in 2 weeks, the human carbon footprint would decrease dramatically. That would make a few of the environmental wackos at the EPA happy.

I suppose the ‘unknown threat’ is why some vaccine has been kept stockpiled over the years. The CDC claims there is enough to vaccinate the entire US population, but could they really vaccinate everyone quickly enough? This Federal Government? Yeah right.

s1im on July 9, 2014 at 9:06 AM

Sorry, folks, but don’t count on those smallpox vaccination scars to keep you safe.

Your body can’t retain the ability to make the appropriate antibodies from that single long-ago vaccination, so you are no more protected than someone unvaccinated.

Vaccines aren’t really magic; they will do an adequate job of protecting you for a few years, and if you are repeatedly challenged by the disease over the years your body retains the antibody template, but what mostly happens is we reduce the disease incidence to the point it is the healthiness of the population and not the old vaccinations which keep us disease-free.

Dolce Far Niente on July 9, 2014 at 10:00 AM

Let’s have this government control our health care system.

“Sir, we seemed to have misplaced the liver for your transplant, sorry about that. Soooo….uh…we’ll call you if we find it.”

Bishop on July 8, 2014 at 10:13 PM

Of course, you’re going to have to file a Freedom Of Information request periodically in order to check the status…

landlines on July 9, 2014 at 11:51 AM

If they found these vials, what else is misplaced on shelves in other govt buildings? The fed govt has a lot of unused buildings that are barely maintained so no one has been inside in however long they’ve been unneeded. I don’t trust this current regime to hang onto a bottle of aspirin.

Kissmygrits on July 9, 2014 at 12:43 PM

You SURE you want to put your dangerous bioweapons there???
USNCVN on July 8, 2014 at 10:27 PM

Sorry, I had forgotten about the whole tipping problem.
Maybe if we put anchors around the island it might work?

sharrukin on July 8, 2014 at 10:29 PM

I can think of some anchors we could spare, from MSLSD, CNN, etc.

ReggieA on July 9, 2014 at 2:35 PM

BobMbx on July 9, 2014 at 7:00 AM
I know. I worked the problem prior to 9/11. That, and the stuff we saw and sealed up in Basra still gives me the shakes at night.

flackcatcher on July 9, 2014 at 4:32 PM

“There is no evidence that any of the vials…has been breached.”

Yeah, the Beast is perfect-never does anything wrong.

Move along folks…

Dr. ZhivBlago on July 9, 2014 at 5:10 PM